Tim Keller Taught Us How to Live—and How to Die

The late pastor sought to glorify God in his devotional life, his marriage, and his ministry. How he did so in his illness was no different.

It was June 3, 2020. The subject line of the email from Kathy Keller made my heart sink: “Tim’s got pancreatic cancer.” The diagnosis was stage IV. With current therapy, life expectancy is less than a year. There is no stage V. Thus began a three-year journey that explored the cutting edge of experimental cancer therapeutics—but more significantly, the courageous approach to terminal illness by a man of deep faith.

Tim had been my friend for a decade. In the early years of BioLogos, he agreed to cohost intensely interesting and productive meetings in New York, where deep discussions about the complementarity of science and Christian faith took place. Though we didn’t completely agree on everything, Tim became my most significant spiritual mentor.

But now I was in a different role. As a physician-scientist and the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I reached out to help him and Kathy sort through the options for interventions. Chemotherapy can sometimes help pancreatic cancer, but only for a time. On the horizon, however, are new approaches called “precision oncology”—characterizing the unique DNA mutations in the patient’s cancer in exquisite detail and then teaching the body’s immune system to recognize the masked intruders.

Tim and Kathy, his partner in life, love, and faith, weighed the pros and cons and elected to sign up for an NIH clinical trial that had shown some initial promise for advanced breast and gall bladder cancers but for which there was so far very limited experience with pancreatic cancer. Tim was clear-eyed about the likelihood of benefit, but he wanted assurance that whatever happened, the medical research team would learn from …

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